If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to both keep their playoff hopes alive and remain very much in the hunt for the AFC North's top prize, they have no choice but to defeat the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday.
With the Cincinnati Bengals pulling off their Week 15 win on Thursday night, the Steelers need to make sure they keep piling on wins.
Next week's meeting between the Bengals and Steelers will do more to define the AFC's playoff picture than this week's game against Dallas. However, it's necessary that the Steelers win all three of their remaining games in order to look worthy of a postseason berth and not like just another team that backs their way in.
After last week's disappointing loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Steelers should be more than fired up for the Cowboys this week. But playing angry is only one component to a Pittsburgh win. Here's a game plan for how they can get that done on the field.
Though Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant has a fractured left index finger that apparently will require surgery, it looks as though he plans to play through the injury and take the field against the Steelers on Sunday.
Bryant participated in practice on Thursday and Friday, albeit in a limited capacity. And though his finger may be taped and splinted on Sunday, that doesn't make him less of a threat. If he's on the field, quarterback Tony Romo will be targeting him, and the Steelers will need to keep his catches at a minimum.
Bryant used to be controllable. He'd maybe have a few first-half catches, perhaps a touchdown and then disappear in the remainder of the game, held down by the cornerbacks and safeties tasked with shadowing him. However, this season—especially later in the season—he's become more physical and harder to defend.
On the season, Bryant has been targeted 108 times, with 75 catches for 1,029 yards and nine touchdowns. Seven of those nine scores have come in his last five games, and only one receiver has more touchdowns than him so far this season.
With the Steelers' secondary dealing with a number of injuries—cornerback Ike Taylor is out this week, and his backup, Cortez Allen, is listed as doubtful, meaning Curtis Brown (or Josh Victorian) will move over to the starting job—they're more vulnerable to dynamic receivers like Bryant.
Take last week, for example. The Steelers gave up a combined 14 receptions to Chargers receivers Danario Alexander and Micheal Spurlock, for 152 total yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdowns belonged to Alexander, while Spurlock caught all seven passes thrown his way.
If this performance is repeated on Sunday, the Steelers won't be able to defeat Dallas.
Though Bryant isn't the only receiving threat on the Cowboys roster—Miles Austin and Jason Witten are both venerable targets in their own rights—the touchdowns flow through Bryant. Cutting off Romo's most productive receiver will immediately result in fewer Dallas points and less successful drives.
Keenan Lewis appears to be the one tasked with keeping Bryant at bay on Sunday, and he needs to be able to pull this off without other options opening themselves up with Austin and Witten. This means the Steelers need to adjust their coverage in intelligent ways. Safety help cannot be focused on assisting Lewis with Bryant, especially with the less-experienced Brown (or Victorian) likely to be lined up with Austin.
This means that, for much of the game, Lewis will need to hold his own. He's been fairly successful so far this season, giving up just two touchdowns on the year and allowing only 50.5 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be caught. That's a good sign for the Steelers.
However, Bryant has caught 69.4 percent of the passes thrown to him. The number this Sunday needs to be closer to Lewis' average than Bryant's.
Start Hot on Offense
Last week's loss to the Chargers can be attributed to a complete first-half failure by the Steelers offense to get anything going (with, of course, the defense also failing to contain San Diego's passing game). With Dallas' passing game (presumptively) taken care of this week, the next step is for the Steelers offense to be ready to take the field from the first moment and not leave the points and yards to the end of the game, when the deficit is too great to make any difference.
Though the Steelers ended up with the bulk of their offensive production in the second half of last week's game because of a softening of the Chargers defense, it was still disconcerting to see that Pittsburgh couldn't get its collective act together until the game was out of hand.
The Steelers didn't have a single first down until the final drive of the first half, put up no touchdowns in the first 30 minutes and had only 123 yards of total offense.
Beyond quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, no member of Pittsburgh's offense looked ready to play last week. Drops by his receiving targets where prevalent—Mike Wallace had just two catches on his six first-half targets, Antonio Brown one catch on three, Heath Miller one on four. They had only 25 rushing yards on 11 carries in the first half and just a Shaun Suisham field goal as far as points were concerned.
Roethlisberger needs to be on target with his receivers, but his receivers also need to do their parts and catch passes. That means getting separation on the Cowboys defenders assigned to them, fighting for catches, not committing fundamental errors like turning to run before the ball has been caught and staying connected and aware to everything happening on the field.
It seems simple, but it's not, if Wallace's comments about his lack of focus are any indication (though it's also important to note he claimed he was lacking focus because he wasn't getting thrown to enough—something that Bleacher Report's Scott Kacsmar soundly refuted earlier this week).
Before Roethlisberger went out with injury after Week 10's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers had one of the most productive and efficient passing offenses in the league. However, that seems to have dipped—not just in his three-game absence, but also when he finally returned to action last week.
The Steelers offense—both the pass and the run games—must return to how it was before Roethlisberger's injury and play all four quarters consistently. Even if the offense does contain Romo, Bryant and the Cowboys' passing offense this Sunday, leaving their points and yards to the fourth quarter is neither safe nor smart. This team needs to be ready from the first second of play.